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16 Oct 2002 : Column 301continued
The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): We have concluded negotiations and signed agreements with 61 local authorities, including 20 that were involved in the pilot stage of this scheme. We are concluding negotiations with 19 authorities and have started others with a further 13 authorities. A schedule for negotiations has been agreed with the remaining authorities that wish to take part in the scheme.
In the spirit of the new localism, will my hon. Friend ensure that the spirit of the local public service agreements, which were widely welcomed as representing a real partnership for improvement between central and local government, is not lost in the new comprehensive assessment regime but made central to it?
Mrs. Roche: I agree with the important points made by my hon. Friend. Local agreements are essential to local delivery. The best thing about the scheme is that it enables local authorities not only to agree national targets but to deliver the objectives wanted by local people in their area.
Mrs. Roche: I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the figures, but I would be careful about criticising them if I were him because all political parties in all the local government organisations warmly welcome them. Indeed, Kent county council, which is controlled by the party that he supports, is a great supporter of them.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I thank the Minister for rejecting the notion that local PSAs are a bureaucratic encumbrancethere is local authority enthusiasm for thembut will she focus on the aspect that relates to the decent homes standard to ensure that local authorities are not caught in a different trap where the obligations to meet energy efficiency targets are in conflict with their commitments to provide safe housing areas in which people can live?
Mrs. Roche: That is an important point, and my hon. Friend has a very honourable record in this area. The good thing about those schemes is that local authorities and other agencies in the voluntary sector can negotiate with us directly to make sure that they get aims of that kind.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The formal consultation on options for the formula grant distribution system closed on 30 September. We will consider the evidence, the pressures and the points made before we take decisions. Those decisions will be announced in the 200304 provisional settlement around the start of December.
Richard Younger-Ross: Does the Minister accepthe partially did in the debate that we started yesterday and have still to continuethat the present methodology is extremely complicated? Would it not be better to move from the present grant system to a fair system, abolish the present Tory council tax and have a system based on ability to pay, such as a local income tax?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate elements in the local government finance framework. The Liberal Democrats' local income tax proposals are, as I understand themthey are a confused party with somewhat confused proposalsdesigned to be an alternative to the council tax. What we are discussing under the formula grant distribution is Government grant and how it is distributed between local authorities. That in no way relates to raising any form of local revenue through local income tax.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): As part of the review, will my right hon. Friend consider how to implement the Government's policy of helping coalfield areas? That policy is directly contradicted by making those areas, such as Derbyshire, subsidise the wealthier, less deprived counties through the area cost adjustmentthe home counties subsidy.
Mr. Raynsford: Several issues have been raised during the consultation about particular indicators and measures that would be significant to coalfield communities. Some of the issues that we have considered have also related to rural, former coalfield areas with relatively sparse populations that have suffered the consequences of the decline in the traditional industries, so we are looking at the detailed factors in coalfield areas and, indeed, in all areas. I hope that, when we publish our proposals, my hon. Friend will understand that we have been doing our best to replace the unsatisfactory standard spending assessment with a fairer, more transparent and better system.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): Does the Minister agree that those local authorities that find that their grant will be supported by the floor next year, but get specific grants for a large proportion of their funding this year, may find his promise that they will be no worse off pretty hollow?
Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that, in reforming the distribution of Government grant to address what are perceived as injustices, it would be very sad if we were to introduce fresh injustices. I fear that that might happen if sufficient cognisance is not taken of high housing costs, which would greatly affect unitary authorities such as mine that have high social deprivation in association with extremely high housing costs, which create terrible problems.
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a valid point in highlighting the particular needs in some areas with very high costs. He will appreciate, however, in the light of the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), that there are concerns about the area cost adjustment in areas of low cost. One of our dilemmas is trying to reconcile the many conflicting claims of different areas, which see the need for changes in the system that will advantage them. Our job is to achieve a balance, reach a judgment and produce a system that is the fairest possible combination of factors, recognising the different pressures facing different areas.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Dealing with the specific grant element of the reforms, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the director of inspection at the Audit Commission, Mr. Paul Kirby? He has said:
The right hon. Gentleman has been at the Department for many years. When did he realise that the Government's reforms were causing damage to local authorities? When does he expect that local authorities will have the degree of freedom that they had under the last Conservative Government?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman should perhaps consider employment in a comedy show, because his last question indicates a remarkable lack of sense of reality. The last Conservative Government were responsible for the greatest act of centralisation of powers, taking powers away from local government, controlling local authority spending, abolishing local authorities and interfering again and again in local democracy. I am
On Mr. Kirby, we not only agree with himalthough not on that particular pointbut have just employed him in central Government. He will be taking up a new post helping us to improve delivery. On that point, I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on whether he really believes that it is perverse to give additional rewards and support to successful authorities to encourage them to do even better. He will be in a minority of one if he believes that.